MANILA, Philippines - Hunger and frustration came to a boiling point in Quezon City. Close to a hundred slum-dwellers from Sitio San Roque took to the streets on April 1 to demand food and medical aid. The police responded with brute force, dispersing the assembly and arresting 21 protesters.

For over two weeks the community, like so many others, had received little to no aid from the government.

“We hardly have anything to feed ourselves, especially for my three-year-old daughter. My husband has not been paid in almost a month. The police hit my husband and pinned him down. There has been no help from the government,” San Roque resident Bernadeth Caboboy, whose husband was among the 21 arrested, told The News Lens.

Secretary of Interior and ex-military chief Eduardo Ano declared “no mercy” for the 21 arrested protesters. Bail for the detained was set at a hefty US$300 per head. The protesters were released on April 6 upon pledges to put up bail by the pop star Frankie Pangilinan, along with her parents Senator Francis Pangilinan and entertainment industry impresario Sharon Cuneta, and the actor Jodi Santamaria.

The incident at Sitio San Roque drew condemnation and sympathy for the protesters from social movements. National urban poverty activist group, Kadamay, pointed to the heart of the matter.

“Instead of listening to the cries of people suffering from hunger, the national government responded with violence. We must ask: Why has there been no aid for the poor despite Duterte’s long promised social assistance?” Kadamay chairperson Bea Arellano said. “These types of outbursts will continue if the administration continues to respond with militarization instead of services.”

Metro Manila and the entire island of Luzon, encompassing 42 million people, have been on lockdown since mid-March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Thousands of police have been deployed to enforce strict curfews and checkpoints. All non-essential movement outside the home is punishable by arrest. As people are forced by hunger to go out, risking infection, the lockdown amounts to a criminalization of poverty.

Arrests for violating the guidelines of the lockdown have spiked drastically, with more than 17,000 imprisoned nationwide as of March 30. Two days later, that number rose to 20,389, making for an average of over 1,000 per day.

In contrast, the number of tests conducted by the Department of Health (DOH) numbered 22,958 as of April 6. This figure does not accurately represent the amount of people tested since the Department admitted that some patients were administered multiple tests.

Since the start of the lockdown, Duterte has instructed local government units (LGUs) to take the lead in assisting their constituents. However, most lack the necessary resources and manpower, as reflected in the bubbling displeasure over the distribution of relief.


Photo Credit:AP/ TPG Images

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, March 12, 2020

Only on March 31 did Duterte pledge US$3.9 billion for low income households, equivalent to US$157 per family for the next two months. But three weeks into the lockdown there are no signs of the stimulus cash. The delays have prompted a trending hashtag #NasaanAngAyuda (Where is the aid?) on social media.

The Presidential Cabinet announced on Tuesday an additional US$98 aid for formal workers before any payment was made.

The delays and jarring lack of government support have been laid bare by reports of increased unrest since the April 1 Sitio San Roque incident.

In the province of Rizal, residents mobbed government offices for aid. Town officials in the San Luis barangay of Antipolo city released a manifesto declaring that they “have given up on being instruments of the messy implementation of social assistance.” Their statement revealed how many constituents were excluded from the list of beneficiaries for failure to comply with a multitude of bureaucratic forms. In Payatas, Quezon City, residents on social media tussled with local officials about the problems of relief distribution.

Duterte addressed the nation characteristically in a late night tirade warning the public that violators of the lockdown will face police who are emboldened to “shoot them dead.” He mentioned this in response to the outcry over San Roque, which the administration dismisses as a staged dramatization of the problems to stir up a ruckus.

Kadamay chairperson Arellano, whose organization was mentioned by name in the President’s tirade, reacted by saying “Bullets are not the food of the hungry. Jail cells are not the medicine for the sick.”

San Roque residents have launched a community kitchen with the help of a support group, the Save San Roque Alliance. With external donations and market vendor contributions, the kitchen mobilized the community into a self-help activity in feeding their ailing neighbors.

But on the third day of the collective cookout, the police came to shut them down, gratuitously tearing down the hand drawn banners displayed around the kitchen area bearing slogans like “aid not jails” or “release the P8000 social assistance now.” The authorities maintained that the activity and its message violated the guidelines of the lockdown. On the staging of the kitchen, city police chief Rodrigo Soriano, told reporters “During these times, do we even need that?”


Photo Credit: Michael Beltran

A sign reads "Rice Not Violence" at a community kitchen.

One of the conveners, Jan Marvi Atienza, told The News Lens, “When they called for provisions, they were arrested and harmed. Now, we are seeing grassroots resourcefulness with the help of private donations, and still they are persecuted. It’s clear that the government’s priority is not to protect the people, especially those most vulnerable in this time of crisis.”

Bayan Muna (People First) Congressman Ferdie Gaite cited similar undertakings that have been held elsewhere, in communities that weren’t under intense monitoring. “Areas in the cities of Pasig and Valenzuela have opened community kitchens. Instead of harassment from the police, it is best to support these initiatives while giving reminders on social distancing.”

Duterte is extending the lockdown to April 30. With the additional two weeks for a country facing increasing hunger, military containment and a stark lack of assistance and mass testing for the virus, the situation does not bode well for both public health and human rights.

READ NEXT: Basic Needs Unmet in the Philippines While Duterte Exploits Emergency Powers

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.